A Conversation with a Friend (or The Society of Women)

I wrote this “essay”, as it were, in late 2015. (It is perhaps better considered an extrapolative “musing” that grew out of the conversation I had.) I’ve been considering posting this for a while – and while I don’t care too much for the (commercial) idea of ‘Women’s Day’, I think it a good time to put this out.

Some portions of this were in Kannada (especially the conversation and cultural references), but I’ve translated those parts into English so everybody can read it. However, I have kept a few cultural words – for which I’ve provided a glossary at the end of the essay.

*****

I was talking to a friend yesterday when he mentioned his interest in a girl in his office. The girl, he said, was from Mangalore and a complete ingénue—with no idea whatsoever of the world.
‘She’s like a child, man,’ he said, using his hands to cuccoon an imaginary child, ‘a real doll.’
I, of course, took the opportunity to rag him a little and ask the customary question of when they were going to get married; a jest he took well and shrugged off with a laugh.
The matter took a turn when I probed him a little more about her. Was she a Kannadiga or was she Tulu? Was she … ?
Tuḷu*,’ he said, ‘she’s a Tulu…a Shetty* from Mangalore.’
His voice turned contemplative as he returned unconsciously to the jest I’d made about marriage – ‘And that’s just it, Madhava…you know how it with us. If she were a brahmin*, it would have been different, but now…not a chance, man. In fact, I myself don’t know that I’d marry outside… ”
Why not, I asked? What was the matter? Surely his parents weren’t that strict?
‘O they are, kaṇo, they are, extremely so.’
What about him? Did he believe in such tradition mores too? He hesitated before saying that, no – no, he really didn’t, but what was the use when he couldn’t make his parents understand?
Well then, what about your sister, I asked, referring to his sister who’s only a few years older than him.
‘Ayyo!’, he exclaimed, ‘she’s the worst of the lot! As maḍi* as can be! At least my father if I pestered him long enough would tell me to go to hell—in other words, to do what I wanted to! But she, no way, not a chance!’
And your mother I asked him, couldn’t you bring her round to seeing things your way, especially in this day and age?
‘My mother…she’s very emotional, kaṇo…’ he replied, without elaborating, for both of us knew what he meant.
The next ten minutes revolved around a discussion of the merits and faults of such traditional ideas. With no stake in the matter, I continued to urge him to shake off boldly the shackles of tradition—blind tradition.
‘You can’t go on like this, man, you have to say what you think before it’s too late. Especially when it has to do with you yourself. And all this idea of caste-purity that’s being held on to, no wonder there’s so much hatred shown to the brahmin…this behaviour is essentially untouchability.’
He nodded in agreement, then mumbled that he had told the girl that he couldn’t commit himself at the moment; that they should wait for three months, etc. He seemed abashed about it.
‘At least her family believes,’ he said hopefully, ‘and worship those bhūtas* or whatever…’ Yes, I said, I’d heard about the bhūta worship that happens in the region around Mangalore and the Karavaḷi region.
We parted soon after. Our chat had taken a more serious turn than I’d expected. While I am quite certain that my friend is not considering marriage at the moment—he is only 22—I think that the knowledge of the various tangles associated with the matter have begun to gnaw at him. In this, he is representative of a certain type in society—the savarṇa* middle-class youth whose aspirations are moulded by western culture and whose ideals are shaped by the Hindu values that have been bequeathed him or her. The urban gloss of such lives is obvious—but just as obvious to the keen eye is the thinness of this gloss. Rooted nowhere, yet not entirely deracinated, the phenomenon is that of a trishaṅku*, a creature caught in limbo, less glamorous than it is pathetic.
Reviewing our conversation later on, what struck me was my friend’s assessment of his mother and his sister, the two women closest to him. It served to remind me of my private notion that the continuance of societal mores is much more the responsibility of its womenfolk than its menfolk. In the context of patriarchal society, the irony of this is poignant.
Just think of it! A woman upholding the absurdly rigid idea of maḍi in rituals that she is not even allowed to participate in; a woman teaching her daughter-in-law to be a dutiful wife and to be sure to bear male children; a woman speaking of the kanyādāna* of her own daughter as though she were simply chattel, just like her mother must have spoken of her. It sounds incredible, masochistic, even unnatural—which in many ways it is. But just as clear and just as natural is the reason that drives this behaviour—the ineluctable conditioning force of history. It is a force created by man, controlled by man, dominated by man, turned and twisted by man, and finally, driven forward by man.
The metaphor of the woman as a field for the man’s seed is an old one, prevalent I suspect in every culture. Its origin lies in the practice of equating woman to the earth, of equating her ability to bear children to the earth’s ability to transform a seed into plant. Her fertility is essential – just like the earth’s fertility is – but only so far as to help the seed within her womb germinate. She is absolutely necessary, but at the same time replaceable – barren soil may be discarded for soil that is fertile. She is the receptacle, the nurturer, the caregiver – but only after the seed has been sown and has germinated. Prior to this, she is a passive creature – her motherhood is bestowed upon her by man; it is he who drives creation, who drives the race forward. Woman both receives and gives, but only as a consequence of man’s agency.
It is these sort of ideas that appear to have given rise to the patriarchal system of society the world over – with some exceptions, but none powerful enough to have made any difference to the course of history. Of course, the difference in stature and physical prowess, the primitive existence that made foraging necessary, woman’s congenital mothering nature were all important reasons for society to form as it did.
In the particular case of post-vedic society – or equivalently, contemporary Hindu society – whose mores stretch back a few millenia, its most defining feature is perhaps the varṇa* system practised under the umbrella of a patriarchy. When the varṇa system began to be practised is uncertain, nor is it relevant here, but the grouping of woman with the shūdra*, the lowest varṇa of the four is, very likely, not simply the consequence of Manusmriti’s* directive but of society’s opinion of women at the time.
Yet, despite all the surmises made above, it is difficult to say precisely why societies grew as patriarchies rather than as matriarchies. If, as is likely, a child’s upbringing was largely in the woman’s hands, what was a boy taught that allowed him to create a society that privileged a man over a woman; what was a girl taught that allowed her to accept – without opposition – her position as man’s inferior? Was woman – in her position as the child’s first teacher – not able to bring up both son and daughter as equals? Had she, already, been taught that man was her superior? Had she already come to see herself as the chattel of the men in society, whose duty it was to help man continue the race? Had she learnt already that to menstruate was somehow unclean?
And if she had, how had she? For what reason? Was it because she lacked man’s strength? Was it because she had been made by man to submit to him? Was it because she had chosen to play the role she believed she had been assigned – that of nourisher and caregiver? Was it her knowledge of man’s agency in the reproductive process? Was it her nature – that chose motherhood above other things? Was it her sexuality – that drew her to man despite his behaviour? Was it her competitiveness – that made her align herself against her fellow woman rather than with her?
Not being a woman, I do not know the answer to these. Nor do I believe that a woman does – though she may be able to go further towards answering them than me. But why a woman – uneducated perhaps, but capable of thinking for herself – should believe that menstruating women must be quarantined; should believe that she or another woman must not read the scriptures or be priests; should believe that to marry off her daughter is to donate her to her husband’s house, thereby severing ties; should choose to side with the man if another woman questions the authority he gives himself; should tell her daughter-in-law to bear a male child and chastise her if she doesn’t; should choose to think of her son’s children as the grandchildren of her house but her daughter’s as those of her son-in-law’s house; should fuss over rites and ceremonies that she is not even allowed to participate in; should choose to force other women to follow rather than question male injunctions that treat woman as impure – these seem like questions too knotted, too old, too misted by history for even the most able woman to unravel easily.

Glossary
:

1. Tuḷu — one of the five Dravidian languages spoken in South India. The Mangalore region is home to a major portion of the Tulu speaking peoples of India. Here, Tulu refers to the girl being a speaker of the Tulu language.

2. Shetty — a “caste” group historically known for being traders or merchants

3. Brahmin — a member of the highest class in the varṇa hierarchy (that is said to have begun as a way of classifying people by their profession). As the stewards of cultural knowledge, they were deferred to by the remaining classes.

4. maḍi — extremely fussy about cleanliness and ritual purity

5. bhūta — a (usually maligant) spirit

6. savarṇa — a member of any one of the three higher varṇas, viz. a Brahmin, a Kshatriya or a Vaishya

7. trishaṅku — a mythological king of Hindu mythology who is said to exist in limbo between heaven and earth

8. kanyādāna — the dāna (“charitable giving”) of a post-pubescent woman by her father to her husband; or in other words, the transfer through marriage of a woman from her father’s house to her husband’s house

9. shūdra — a member of the lowest of the four varṇas in the hierarchy of post-vedic society

10. Manusmriti — a book supposed to have been written by the law-giver, Manu. It remained mostly inconsequential until resurrected by the British in their misbegotten attempt to create a ‘Hindu Law’. Today, it is reviled among the English-educated classes for its extreme views on varṇa and its misogny. (The rest of society mostly doesn’t know or care.)

One thought on “A Conversation with a Friend (or The Society of Women)

  1. Pingback: To Her Tormentors | My Poetry etc.

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